by Mark Scott
Founding Academic Dean of Ozark Christian College, Seth Wilson, said, “If Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18), then how much is left over for you?” The answer is in the question. I suppose that is why I get nervous when I hear church folk talk about the “authority” of the elders (or the preacher or the church secretary for that matter). What is implied in how that word “authority” is used?
The Greek word translated authority is “exousia.” It occurs 102 times in the New Testament and means “the right to command or the power to act.” Interestingly enough, it never appears in conjunction with any discussion of the elders (their 17 qualifications or 12 duties). In fact, the word does not appear at all in 1 or 2 Timothy. Most people know that the word “office” is not really in the Greek text of 1 Timothy 3:1. It is supplied (sometimes) by translators. But the word for “work” is in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:1. Maybe that is what an elder has – not an authoritative office but a “good work.”
Don’t misunderstand me. To oversee the church does imply some kind of empowerment by someone. But elders should use caution when they desire the work of an elder so that they can command and boss people. Again quoting Brother Seth Wilson, “All of our efforts to control people shows our failure to convert them.” Some might argue that since the church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20), didn’t the apostles pass the baton of authoritative leadership to the elders? I do believe in a certain level of plural apostolic succession. The farther one reads in Acts the more evident it is that the apostles started fading into the background and the local church elders took on the leadership of the church. Note Acts 21:17-26 for a classic example where the local Jerusalem elders tell the Apostle Paul what to do – and he obeys them.
But, at best, any authority that the elders have is first delegated (see Matthew 10:1 for an example of what Jesus did with the apostles) and is secondly through teaching and persuasion (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Corinthians 5:11). Loving the people (the latest strong emphasis on eldership coming from Alexander Strauch), equipping the saints, watching their souls, protecting the church from savage wolves, teaching the Bible, and pleading with the people to not be idle, etc. all gain the elders’ spiritual clout with the people so that they will follow the elders (John 21:15-19; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Some might ask about church discipline, and in those instances it may seem that the elders have to use authority. But I would ask elders to carefully examine the grammar of Matthew 18:18. The original NASB had it right, “Whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven…” In other words, whatever elders (they may be the two or three witnesses referred to in Matthew 18:16, 19-20; see Kurt Aland’s Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, 253 and the quote from Ignatius) exercise in terms of discipline has already been decided by heaven. They are simply declaring heaven’s will – not their own.
Some years ago someone asked then-President of Ozark Christian College, Don Earl Boatman, where the lines of authority were between his ministry and Brother Seth Wilson’s ministry. President Boatman’s response was, “We don’t worry about authority, we just emphasize responsibility.” Elders have leadership, influence, clout, sway, and persuasion. But perhaps the only authority they have is the authority of their own obedience in following Jesus.